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  • #1 by WarrenOates on 05 Jun 2023
  • After a few years of a couple-pies-a-month pan pizza making at home, I decided to moonlight at a NY-style spot.   I was intimidated by the prospect of dough stretching (hence the pan pies) and felt the only way I was ever going to nail the technique was through a degree of repetition I'd be unable to achieve in a home setting.

    About a week after I'd been hired, the restaurant received a rave review by a major (maybe the biggest) pizza influencer and business was bonkers.  This being my first BOH job, I was, understandably, relegated to finishing pies, although even that is not an easy task, I came to find, when a business's volume is high.

    I got pretty good at finishing pies, and I never missed a shift, and this led, after about eight months of working weekends, to a full-time employment offer.  I want very much to run my own restaurant one day, and I was feeling unfulfilled at my daytime/full-time job, so taking up the offer was a no-brainer.

    So now I'm doing it all: prep, stretch, build, ovens, finish, you name it.

    When I first started stretching dough, I thought I'd never get anywhere near a professional level of competence.  The strides I've made are incredible.  I can now get a ball stretched out round and even, and can do so quickly, this coming from a guy whose stretching, even a month or so back, tended to result in skins thin and misshapen.  Here, I feel very accomplished and proud.

    On the other hand, I can't seem to turn the corner on launching pies.  It is strange to me, and maybe it's because the majority of people who seek pizza making resources are home cooks, or maybe it's because it's somewhat difficult to articulate, how little information and instruction there is online as to how one should go about launching a 16" or 20" pizza because I find it by far the hardest/highest-pressure aspect of pizza making.

    The general notion seems to be, "don't overthink it."  "Get your reps in, and your form will develop."  And to a certain extent, there's truth to this.  It's not as if I've seen no improvement.  The overwhelming majority of pies I launch fall within the acceptable range of size and roundness, but man, some of these guys I turn out, yeah, we can and do sell them, but they look like garbage compared to what the more seasoned hands are capable of.

    Where I find myself stumped is the, "don't overthink it," thing, which is the prevailing creed at my operation.  If I were launching the same pie, in the same spot of the oven (we use a three deck Pizza Master), the same amount of semola on the peel, the same temperature of dough, every time, sure, that probably would be sage advice. But these pizzas are different weights, and different temperatures, and I feel like launching in the back of the oven is far harder than in the front, as you're much more limited in your visibility.

    My method is the standard, "nudge it forward, and once you see it moving, pull it back," but there again there doesn't seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach: some pies are immediately off the peel, others need to be coaxed.  There's timing to this that eludes me.

    I'm not entirely discouraged since I've seen my stretching reach heights I never thought myself capable of.  I believe I'll eventually get this down, too.  But I'll also say that part of the dough-stretching improvement came from buying a silicone dough and practicing at home.  There is simply no way for me to replicate launching pie-after-pie in my apartment.  My only place to practice is at work, where the pressure is always on.

    So I'm here to ask: how do I do this consistently?  Or, more specifically, how do you do this consistently?  What are you looking at when launching?  What are you feeling for when launching?  How high is your peel on your initial drop?  How many backstrokes does it typically take you for a full launch?  Any other insights you may have would be appreciated.
  • #2 by scott r on 05 Jun 2023
  • As you have noted there are many ways to properly launch a pizza.  For my beginner pizza makers I have learned a trick that works well.   I get them to raise the peel up at an angle so that its not flat as many attempt to launch.  Then once the peel is at a good angle I have them do many small tremors... like a small earth quake.  This combo of gravity from the angle and the many small shakes works wonders and most get the pizza sliding right off the peel fast without problems.  Then after time, eventually they are at the point where they dont need the angle and small shakes, although some stay with that forever as its the best way to go if you have a dough thats sticking a bit.
  • #3 by WarrenOates on 05 Jun 2023
  • Are you encouraging them to tremor their way through the launch, or just enough to get the dough off the peel?  My concern with the tremor-approach is a dough that bunches up at the top, creating the dreaded heart-shaped pizza.
  • #4 by scott r on 05 Jun 2023
  • We dont have that problem.  Along with this approach you must also teach that once the first part of the dough hits the peel you have to pull back!  Im talking really tiny shakes, the smallest possible.  it sounds like what your describing comes from a large shake.
  • #5 by WarrenOates on 05 Jun 2023
  • Right.

    I'm wondering how much of my problem is in my pulling back.  I'll admit I still struggle with recognizing when the dough has hit the stone, especially in the back, but that's becoming less of a problem (though I'd still appreciate tips on this; do you just nudge it forward and assume it's hit, or are you looking at the dough?).  Maybe I'm just too shaky or slow in my pulling back, leading to disfigurement.

    One thing I'll add: we're using a 70% hydration dough, which I've come to understand is not ideal for beginners to learn with.
  • #6 by scott r on 05 Jun 2023
  • You have to be watching to see when your dough hits the stone in front.  If you just nudge forward and assume its a hit you are going to make some big messes for your oven tender to clean and he wont be happy!

    To me it sounds like too slow in pulling back.  Also, the shakes must continue and I cant stress enough... small tiny little but violent shakes, nothing too big from front to back or you will have troubles.  Also, again there must be a very healthy angle here, going straight in is for seasoned pros.  Do not nudge forward at all using this method... that will lead to accordion.  The dough should just slide right off onto the floor and then you pull back at first hit as shakes continue.

    Even if you dont continue to use this method that works best for many beginners, this is the way to get a stuck pizza off of the peel so you need to learn it regardless.
  • #7 by woodfiredandrew on 05 Jun 2023
  • Right.

    I'm wondering how much of my problem is in my pulling back.  I'll admit I still struggle with recognizing when the dough has hit the stone, especially in the back, but that's becoming less of a problem (though I'd still appreciate tips on this; do you just nudge it forward and assume it's hit, or are you looking at the dough?).  Maybe I'm just too shaky or slow in my pulling back, leading to disfigurement.

    One thing I'll add: we're using a 70% hydration dough, which I've come to understand is not ideal for beginners to learn with.


    I think you are there,  70% hydration dough to launch in WF oven on very busy night is not small task for sure, lots of bench flour and making sure dough balls are not overblown, 
  • #8 by WarrenOates on 05 Jun 2023
  • I think if I were working with other relatively green people, I'd have have a different perspective regarding my progress.  These guys make it look very easy, is a big part of it.  But you're right: running an oven on a busy Saturday night is not a walk in the park for a beginner. 
  • #9 by zare111 on 06 Jun 2023
  • 70% water is an intense dough for your first pro gig but the good news is, if you can master the launch there you can do it anywhere. I see new pizzamakers get discouraged when they're screwing up launching pies their first couple shifts and I tell them I wish there was a highlight reel of my first year's worth of pizza disasters. Now I feel more confident in my ability to launch pizzas than I do pulling my car outta the driveway. Like you said, just gotta get your reps in. Scott's advice is great--I refer to the "little tremors" as "micro-motions." It's almost like vibrating your entire forearm to gently jostle the first part of the dough skin off the peel before you pull the whole thing back. My one exception is that I discourage people from angling the peel, really ever, because it sort of blocks your view of that crucial back part of the pizza and prevents you from developing the muscle-to-vision brain connection between what you're doing at a minute level and what's happening to the dough skin.

    I don't want you to dox yourself but if it's possible to take a discreet video of your launching technique, it might help diagnose one or two small things that would make you more confident/consistent. I'm also curious exactly how you're flouring the launch peel with semolina or whatever and how you identify or deal with stickiness problems which, as you're well aware, can vary from day to day or even one dough ball to another. Confidence is the biggest success factor, in my opinion. I'll never forget when I started working at a shop 5 years ago, one of the line veterans watched me wreck a 20" pepperoni and said bluntly: "if you're worried it's gonna stick, it's gonna stick." He was right.
  • #10 by WarrenOates on 06 Jun 2023
  • Quote
    prevents you from developing the muscle-to-vision brain connection between what you're doing at a minute level and what's happening to the dough skin.

    Yes, this is big, and I think where it's not coming together fully for me.  I understand each discrete step of the process: get just a bit of the dough off the peel, then quickly pull the peel back so that the rest of it might land on the stone, but having to nearly simultaneously move the peel forward, then move it back, all the while paying attention to the dough atop the peel, is not happening with fluidity, at least not nearly enough.

    I was unable to jump rope into my late twenties, and then one day I was able to do it.  This was a progression, no doubt, but an imperceptible one, so it felt as if I went from utter incapability to capability within a day's time.  I suspect things will, "click," similarly here, just hoping for continued patience on part of my employer until they do.

    As for the peel, we put a healthy amount of semola on it prior to dropping the skin.  Far as stickiness is concerned, I'm making it a point to shake the peel a bit before it goes in for the launch, obviously this gives you some indication of how freely the thing is moving, and I'm getting a better sense, when I make those initial movements forward, moving the skin from peel to stone, how clingy the dough is and getting better at adjusting accordingly.
  • #11 by rizzler on 06 Jun 2023
  • some rice flour on that peel might save you a million headaches.
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